Monday, April 30, 2007

[Interview_1]Tabitha Suzuma

Emerging novelist Tabitha Suzuma studied French Literature at King's College in London and has taught English as a Foreign Language. She has also worked in I.T., and has done some translation work as well as worked as a Year 1 teacher in Slough. She wrote her debut novel, A Note of Madness while she was teaching full-time.

In 2003 Suzuma left classroom teaching and divided her time between writing and peripatetic teaching. This gave her time to write three more novels for teenagers and young adults, From Where I Stand (a psychological thriller), Without Looking Back, and A Song for Jennah (a sequel to A Note of Madness).

She is currently working on her fourth novel. She says she decided she wanted to be a writer when she was about six years old. "I remember discovering the magic of books at that age and saying to my mother 'I want to be able to do that.' I then found an exercise book and started writing my first story."

The authors she read as a teenager, particularly K.M. Peyton and S.E. Hinton, also influenced her. "I would write to my favorite authors telling them how much I loved their books and many of them wrote back, encouraging me with my own writing," she says.

It took her six months to write A Note of Madness. "I found writing the whole book quite easy, to be honest," Suzuma says. "I had no idea that it would be published so I was very unselfconscious and just wrote whatever I wanted. I think the beginning of a book is always the hardest, but once you get into it and gain some insight into your characters and your story, it gets much easier."

The writer also found that, in itself, writing was therapeutic. "I loved writing the dialogue between the three main characters. I loved writing about their friendship, and how it evolved. I also enjoyed writing about the hero's experience of depression and mania," she adds. "It was very therapeutic."

Suzuma says she drew on a lot of her own personal experiences when she was working on A Note of Madness. "This was influenced by my love for music, my brother who is a pianist, and my own experiences with severe clinical depression," she says.

The three other novels Tabitha Suzuma has written are due to be published over the next three years. "Each book is very different from the last. A Note of Madness is perhaps the most personal as it is based on so many of my own experiences. My next book, From Where I Stand, is coming out in May 2007. It is a psychological thriller about a deeply disturbed teenager hunting for his mother's killer."

She says that, as a writer, her main concerns are whether people will want to read her books, whether the stories she wants to write will be the stories that people want to read and whether she will ever be able to earn enough from writing to make it her full-time occupation.
"I write gritty teen fiction with a psychological slant. My first book is about mental illness," she explains. "I don't want to be a typically 'commercial' writer but at the same time I need my books to sell well so that I can continue doing what I love."

As a first-time author Suzuma worries about if she will be able to earn a living solely from writing and getting her books publicized. "People won't go into a bookshop saying 'I want to buy Tabitha Suzuma's latest novel' because they won't have heard of me. It is also a challenge writing for the teenage market," she says.

Her books are aimed at older teens and young adults, but in the United Kingdom teen fiction is still under the umbrella of children's fiction and is usually found in the same corner of the bookshop. "A lot of teenagers are understandably reluctant to browse in the children's section, which means that older teens and young adults are missing out on a book that was written essentially for them," Suzuma says.

In an effort to deal with these concerns, the writer tries to do her own publicity. She has approached the press and given some interviews. She has contacted mental health charities about her book and she has created her own website.

Suzuma is now working on a book for adults to keep herself from being trapped in just one section of the writers' market. "The book I am currently working on is a book for adults about a custody battle between a biological and a non-biological father," she explains.

In spite of her fears, and if the success of her debut novel is anything to go by, Tabitha Suzuma is set to become one of the most influential writers for teenagers and young adults.

A Note of Madness, which was published in May 2006 by Random House in London, received glowing reviews and has also just been shortlisted for the NASEN & TES Special Educational Needs Book Award.

Related books:


Related article:

Tabitha Suzuma [Interview_2], Conversations with Writers, July 20, 2007

Friday, April 27, 2007

Interview _ Emma Lee

Leicester is home to some of the most exciting emerging writers in the United Kingdom. One of these is poet, short story writer and novelist Emma Lee, who has had poems nominated in competitions that include the Forward Best Poem Prize. Other poems by Emma Lee have been published in anthologies, magazines and webzines and broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Her short stories are proving to be just as significant. "Restoration," was runner-up in Writing Magazine's Annual Ghost Story Competition while "First and Last and Always," another of her short stories, is appearing in Extended Play, a new anthology of music-inspired pieces.

Emma Lee talked about her concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

It chose me. I spent a lot of time alone as a child — I wasn't lonely, it's just a reflection of the circumstances I found myself in — and frequently made up stories as entertainment. Later I filled exercise books writing my stories and branched out into poems. Although I didn't call myself a writer until I reached adulthood and began getting poems and stories published.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

At school we mostly studied the War Poets, Heaney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ted Hughes... which left me with the impression that either women didn't write poetry, which I didn’t believe, or that women's poetry wasn't worth studying - which was discouraging to say the least.

A friend showed me Ted Hughes's "You Hated Spain" and it spoke to me: I identified with the woman who hated Spain. After reading Ariel, Sylvia Plath had me firmly hooked. Here at last was proof women did write and were worth studying.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Fifteen years of music reviewing have provided a rich seam of inspiration and some of my poems and stories have started from exploring a personal experience - not always directly, sometimes from overhearing or reading a news story.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you face?

Finding time to write around a full-time office job (necessary to pay the bills as writing, especially poetry, doesn't pay) and family commitments.

Poetry magazine editors are so generally overwhelmed with poems most are rejecting 98 percent of submissions, which means increasingly my writing time is spent dealing with submissions rather than writing new material.

How do you deal with these?

Planning ahead so that as much as possible of my writing time is spent actually writing rather than "warming up" and thinking about what needs to be written next. Taking advantage of any "spare" time — lunch breaks, waiting for appointments, etc. Ensuring that as soon as a batch of poems is returned by an editor, they are out again with another editor within a couple of days.

What is your latest book about?

Yellow Torchlight and the Blues is about musicians, the pressures of performing and relationships with fans and general hangers-on. It's also about relationships, loss and what makes people who they are.

How long did it take you to write it?

The publisher approached me with a view to publishing a collection of my poems. The poems within Yellow Torchlight and the Blues actually span 16 years.

Where and when was it published?

By Original Plus in Fall 2004.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Deciding which poems to leave out. Poetry collections work best when the poems are inter-linked in some way, perhaps by theme or subject, rather than merely being a collection of loosely gathered poems. So some poems that deserved to be in a collection had [to] fall by the wayside because they didn't fit in this particular collection.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Nothing beats seeing your name on the spine of a book. Giving live performances at, for example, poetry readings are great experiences as the audience give you instant feedback and reassurance. But a book says "you've arrived, you really are a writer."

How did you get there?

Persistence: building up a long list of publishing credits in magazines and competition successes plus a couple of nominations for the Forward Poetry Prizes, giving readings where opportunities presented themselves and establishing a reputation as a reviewer as well as continuing with other writing projects. Success breeds success: you are more likely to get published if you've been published and in poetry it's not unusual for the publisher to approach the poet - many presses won't consider unsolicited work. Initially Yellow Torchlight and the Blues was accepted by another publisher, but the publisher's sad, untimely death meant searching for an alternative publisher.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

[Interview] Lilian Masitera

Lilian Masitera is a woman of many talents.

She is a lecturer-in-charge in the Mathematics Department at Belvedere Technical Teachers College in Harare, a novelist, short story writer and poet.

In 1989, while teaching at Queen Elizabeth High School in Harare, she formulated a way through which the vertical angles of cones could be calculated. The formula was accepted as original by the University of Stanford in the United States and is now widely used by high school students.

In 1994, she was among a group of women who published the first anthology of poems and short stories by Zimbabwean female writers. The anthology was described by local critics as "a landmark in the history of Zimbabwean literature." In 1997, she received a merit award from the International Society of Poets for her poem, "Enter the Teetotaler," which also appears in Militant Shadow (Minerva Press, 1996).

In an interview which was published in Mahogany (November/December 1999), Lilian Masitera talked about her writing:

What made you publish Now I Can Play on your own?

I submitted the seven stories that make up Now I Can Play to a local publishing house a year or so ago. The editor who was handling the stories later informed me that the publishing house was not in a position to publish a collection of short stories from a single writer. Instead they wanted to do an anthology from a number of different writers. Some of my stories would be included in the anthology. Another four were going to be used in an English textbook for secondary schools. The publishing house had also taken another story, "Eleven Twice" and translated it into Shona for publication in a Shona textbook. Although I let them keep my stories and choose what they wanted, I am tired of anthologies. I have been in so many of them with my poetry, so I decided to go solo and publish the collection of short stories on my own.

Did you ever consider sending the manuscript to another publisher?

Minerva Press wanted to publish it. They had accepted the manuscript but I have a problem with being published abroad. My readership is here in Africa but the books don't get here. For them to be available locally, for them to be read here I have to order them myself and it's expensive.

Why Now I Can Play?

Because the whole collection is about women who have fought, won or lost and who say Now I Can Play. For example, there is a schoolgirl who gets raped by her teacher and ends up having an abortion. The story looks at events that led to the abortion.

How autobiographical are your writings?

A lot of what I have written is, to some degree, autobiographical. They are things I have experienced, things I have rubbed shoulders with. I believe I am writing better because of this first-hand experience. Also, it is not too difficult for me to figure out how other people I work with, people I live with, people who were in my childhood, feel. I use them as ingredients in many cases. It is going to be difficult for me to write something totally fictitious.

When did you start writing?

I was writing when I was at school. When I gave what I wrote to other people to read, they enjoyed it. One or two people were shocked by what they read. I remember a composition I wrote once, when I was at secondary school. I went to a girls' school. At the bottom of my composition the teacher wrote, "See me."

When I went to see her, she pointed out some paragraphs which she said were indecent. I remember she told me, "Nice girls don't write like that."

Did you deliberately try to be shocking?

No, not at all. In my composition I had said something about gonads. I didn't realize the impact it would have on the white nun who took us for English. At that time I thought I could write about anything, especially when you write in English — things don't appear as rude or as shocking as when you write them in Shona.

Why do you think this is so?

I suppose it has to do with the place of certain words in culture. You find that in Shona we do not have any words on the reproductive system that can be spoken. You don't refer to certain parts of the anatomy, even to breasts, without causing embarrassment, but in English when I came across them it was in the context of Biology where you draw diagrams and labelled them. Also, some people who use English as their mother language casually throw sexual swear words in their association with people who use English as their second language. So we have learnt them as things which are not vulgar.

What would you say compels you to write?

There are many reasons. I want to share my experiences with others. I want people who read my books to know that what they go through is also experienced by others. I want others to experience the same joy I experienced when I read other people's books, and yes — writing is a compulsion, an addiction.

Monday, April 23, 2007

[Interview] David Bedford, children's author

Over the past six years, David Bedford has published 30 books, with translations in 20 languages. The books range from best-selling picture books such as Big Bear, Little Bear, to The Team series of short comic novels for 7 to 11-year-olds about a struggling football team that enlists the help of a professor and her football-playing robot.

Bedford has a Ph.D. in Gene Cloning from the University of East Anglia and is a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) and the National Centre for Language and Literacy.

He spoke about his writing and the direction it is taking.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

When I first became an avid reader, around the age of 16, I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and decided to have a go myself... much later, while I was a scientist at Stanford University in the U.S., I began writing seriously, with the idea of making a career out of it.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

I mainly write children's picture books, and the most influential writer for me in this genre is Martin Waddell, who wrote Owl Babies and many other great books.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I try to write stories that are "true," that reflect real life. Because I write for children, this means that my stories are set thoroughly in a world children understand; my stories are concerned with the daily issues children encounter.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

My first books for children were published before I had children of my own - these were mostly traditional entertaining kinds of stories, to make people laugh. Since my children were born, my writing has moved in new directions and my books are now, more than ever, attuned the world of children, and often the relationship between parents and children.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you face?

Each book has its own rhythm and structure, and each time I write a story I have to find out what rhythm and structure suits it best. And so each time writing a new book it is the biggest challenge.

How do you deal with these?

When I'm writing a book I focus on it and give it all that I have. I can only make it as good as I can make it - and that's what I try to achieve.

What is your latest book about?

Masters of Soccer is the sixth book in a series I write about a soccer team. There's not too much soccer in this one, and the books are in any case more about the team of boys and girls who play together, about their characters. In this book, two boys from the football team are being forced to perform ballet at school - and for them, it is going to be the most embarrassing experience of their lives.

How long did it take you to write it?

Only three weeks. It was the fastest book of this length (7,000 words) that I've written. It was published in June this year in the U.K. and Australia. The first four books of the series are published also in the U.S., and the first three in Thailand, so hopefully this new book will be available in more countries soon.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Sometimes it's difficult for me because I put my characters — who I love — into very difficult situations. The difficult part is that I have to find a way for them to get out of that situation, and that can be very hard to do. Though the more I write about them, these characters — Harvey, Darren, Rita — speak for themselves and find their own way out.

Which did you enjoy most?

I enjoyed writing about the emotions of fear and awkwardness that embarrassment can bring. I am using my own experiences as a guide!

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

It is funnier, faster and more intense than the other books in this series. When the book was finished and printed, and I read it through, I was breathless - I had forgotten to leave some time for the reader to stop reading for a moment and breathe! But it is supposed to be a page-turner, so probably I can call it a success.

In what way is it similar to the others?

All of the books in this series (we call it The Team Series) are about the main character, Harvey, having a problem to solve. The series starts with him being no good at soccer, and his neighbor, Professor Gertie, helps him by inventing a robot. Every book now has Professor Gertie and her robot trying to help out - usually causing more mayhem and disaster.

What will your next book be about?

I have written a bedtime book for my daughter, called Time for Bed, Isobel. In fact it has just been published in the U.K. and Australia, and it is doing so well I have been asked to write a sequel.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

The moment of becoming a writer was the biggest achievement, simply saying to myself that I was a writer and being brave or foolhardy enough to dedicate a significant amount of time to writing.

How did you get there?

I left my career in science behind even before I had published a book, and I worked at writing for two years before I sold my first stories. So I'd say there was dedication and focus at the heart of it. And perseverance. And never being able to think of a serious Plan B.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Interview _ Haroon Moghul

Haroon Moghul graduated from New York University with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Philosophy and is currently pursuing a Ph.D at Columbia University.

He sits on the editorial board of Islamica Magazine and is a regular contributor to

In 2004, his blog, Avari-Nameh won the Brass Crescent Awards for Best Writing, Best Post and Best Overall Blog. The blog is concerned with issues of Muslim identity, politics and society. Moghul went on to receive the Brass Crescent Award for Best Thinker in 2005, for his contribution to the discourse on Islam.

In addition to writing essays, short stories and poems, Haroon Moghul is the author of two novels: My First Police State (2003), a self-published travelogue; and The Order of Light (Penguin India, 2005).

In a recent interview, he spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.

What is your latest novel, The Order of Light about? What sets it apart from the other things you have written?

The book is about what happens when you take a look at the Muslim world, and what happens when extremism follows itself to its most extreme conclusions.

What happens when a young, impressionable, spoiled, naive Muslim kid goes to Egypt, to learn about Islam, with all the money and resources his privileged Western upbringing provides him, but finds that religion, as he understands it, doesn't fill the gap he feels? Who should he blame, himself or society? And what happens if he finds a group of people whose answer to that question includes violence? What happens when his own logic leads him to very dark places of the human heart, and human history, and contemporary affairs?

Most of the time, I write short essays, political commentary, satire or history. "The Order of Light" blends a lot of those genres into itself, but ultimately, "The Order of Light" is a work of fiction, a snapshot of a very troubled young man at a very impressionable age, and that makes it different. I haven't tried that before. I don't know if I'll do it again, but I do know that it was worth it.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

Several years, on and off. I started in the summer of 2001, while actually in Cairo, and continued to write it for some time afterwards.

I get obsessed with revising and rethinking and actually found it hard to say, "You know what? I'm done. No more."

It was published in the fall of 2005, by Penguin India. On August 30, 2006, Penguin Global released the work for North American and European markets. In the spring of 2007, Cherche Midi will publish a French translation.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Trying to create a story that blends a very intense look inside a person's mind with a rather off-beat, curious science fiction that relies on legends in late classical Muslim history, combining the inner and the outer in a way that satisfies my expectations of the work, and makes itself provocative to Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans and Europeans and Indians and Pakistanis and so on.

Everyone these days, it seems, can't go five steps without bumping into Islam. But it's one thing to confront Islam. Another to try to understand it, or, in my case, make others understand Islam.

Which did you enjoy most?

Describing Cairo, and remaking it for an imaginary time-line. It's a lot of fun. It's a lovely city, magical even.... and writing it was like reliving it.

Not to mention the deep history of the place. Being from America, we are often missing out on that kind of antiquity. It's a special thing, and deserves to be celebrated and recalled.

What will your next book be about?

If only I could find the time to write!

Let's just say I'm working on it, and it's nothing like my previous book. It deals with a lot of deep ideas... Love. Belonging. Community. Loneliness. Madness. Ambition. Inheritance. Two choices when both are bad. But it's not about Islam, or the Islamic world, or even the modern world.

I want to write something for an English audience that wants a damn good story, something they'll put down and think, I was entertained, fascinated and troubled and intrigued and I feel like there was more than a little bit of me in it.

What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

We are made of many perspectives. Morally, it is up to us to bring them into harmony -- in Indian Islam, that's called tatbiq -- but moral harmony doesn't mean denying diversity. On the contrary. That becomes very limiting, very stifling, very stale. I want to get beyond that.

It is very important that what we write have a positive effect, on ourselves and on others. That means that, as a Muslim, as a student, as an American, I want to have a clarifying impact on myself and on others, to preserve knowledge, to improve, to assist, and a writer should be careful not to write for the sake of baser impulses, because that can cause personal and social harm.

I don't believe in a simplistic art for art's sake -- I am an adult, and that requires maturity, sensitivity, and a respect for one's dignity and humanity. But don't think this means dry summarization and transmission. Oftentimes imaginary scenarios and fantasy allow us to see ourselves, and our capabilities, our weaknesses, our potentials and our hopes, from very fascinating perspectives.

In the writing that you are doing, who has influenced you the most?

I remember, years ago, when I was still in grade school, loving stories, loving reading and enjoying writing. For a while I was enthralled by poetry, but as I entered college, I began to realize how much more I enjoyed prose. So as my interest in poetry waned, my interest in prose accelerated. Even now, I don't feel right if I don't write, preferably every day, if even something small, something trite.

It's almost a compulsion. But it is a very wonderful compulsion.

I read a lot. As a student, planning to go into academia, and as someone who enjoys wide varieties of writing, I can't really narrow this list down very successfully. Some fiction names would include Pamuk, Kafka, Philip Roth, Arthur Philips, Updike, Orwell, Huxley, Milan Kundera.

I love non-fiction, especially essays, whether journalistic -- I'm thinking what goes into The New Yorker, or work by people like Geneive Abdo, Amy Waldman, Anthony Shadid -- and collections of essays, too. Not to mention that television and film have been profound influences. I think the visual medium has succeeded in telling great stories, and I don't see why writing can't be seen as influenced by, and influencing, good visual media. In that regard I enjoy everything from Iranian films to science fiction.

Speaking of Iran, the classical Muslim tradition has been a powerful force too, from the lessons of the Qur'an to Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry and philosophy and aesthetics. There are some astonishingly beautiful works of art in that cultural universe, which are sadly passed over by people more interested in Islam as little more than sacred terror.

Have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I don't see how one can be influenced by anything but a personal influence. What other kind of influence is there, really?

How much time do you spend on writing?

Sometimes I read about novelists so dedicated to their task, their craft, they set aside time to write everyday, and do so religiously. I could only aspire to be so dedicated. I used to write more than I do now, not only for myself, but blogging; these days, however, I have decided to concentrate more on my studies. I very much want to be a professor, and feel that, armed with a Ph.D., I could expand the range, scope and effectiveness of my writing. Till then, though, I should be doing more reading and more research. More to learn. Much, much more.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Of course, like so many other young Americans, I worry about finding a job, a good standard of living, politics, the environment, paying for health care, so on and so forth.

Like any person raised in a religious tradition, I worry a lot about salvation. Am I doing the right thing with my life? If I die tomorrow, what will become of me? Because, in a worldly sense, I have so much to be thankful for. I am at a great school, studying what I love. I have wonderful friends and family, and, being recently married, can confidently say I have decided to spend the rest of my life with an astonishingly perfect woman.

How do you deal with these challenges?

Prayer. And lots of worrying, too. It's important to relax, and I do that through writing, of course, [and through] reading, socializing, watching movies, taking walks [and] listening to music.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer? And, how did you get there?

Getting published.

By the grace of God, with hard work, and most of all, the support of family, friends and great advisors, editors and total strangers. The library in my old hometown, Somers, Connecticut -- that staff was so helpful, so kind, so encouraging, so resourceful!

Writing might seem like a lonely task. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and depends upon the kindness, concern and assistance of a lot of other people. I am so grateful that I had this chance and I hope I never lose that sense of gratitude.

Monday, April 16, 2007

[Interview] John Baker

Crime writer, John Baker's novels include Poet in the Gutter (1995); Death Minus Zero (1996); King of the Streets (1998); Walking with Ghosts (1999); The Chinese Girl (2000); Shooting in the Dark (2001); The Meanest Flood (2003) and White Skin Man (2004).

In addition to writing crime and mystery novels, Baker is a book reviewer for Shots magazine and the Tangled Web. He is also a member of the Murder Squad, a collective of crime writers who use workshops, panels, readings and lectures to promote the genre.

In a recent interview, John Baker spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.

What drives the action in your novel, White Skin Man?

White Skin Man is a political novel about racism, those who suffer it, those who perpetrate it, and those who stand and watch. The novel pits ex-con, Stone Lewis and his friends against an intelligent and ruthless white supremacist and a gang of dangerous skinhead no-hopers.

The research for White Skin Man was different to the usual research I put in before I begin to write a novel. The theme was to do with displacement and was especially concerned with asylum seekers. So I contacted the Asylum Seekers’ Support Group in Hull. As a result of this I was introduced to several people who were waiting for the government to decide on their cases. I was invited into the hostels in which they lived and many had stories to tell. So many stories that there was no room for all of them in this novel.

The popular view, in the United Kingdom, is that asylum seekers are scroungers who come to the U.K. to take advantage of the welfare benefits system. How accurate is this?

In my experience it is not accurate at all. Of course, there are cheats and scoundrels in all walks of life and I'm sure they exist among asylum seekers as they exist among republicans and church folk and any other group you care to mention. But generally people seek political asylum because their lives are in danger in their countries of origin.

Governments of all political persuasions in the U.K. and elsewhere have used their abuse of asylum seekers to 'prove' that they can be tough on a perceived threat. A mere glance at history is enough to show us that.

When you were writing White Skin Man, what did you find most difficult? What did you enjoy most?

Although White Skin Man remains a crime novel, it has an additional dimension and the writing of it brought me into contact with many people on the run from oppression and poverty. Unfortunately, for many of them, their flight had only brought them into contact with more misunderstanding, more prejudice and poverty, and more violence. I needed to show the reality of this without preaching.

The most enjoyable part of writing any novel, for me, is the creation of characters. This novel was not an exception.

It makes no bones about being a political novel. While earlier novels had political content and always included some kind of social comment, White Skin Man is a novel about racism.

Racism is the greatest question of our time. From the grand-style apartheid in South Africa, Hitler and his Jewish question, and the civil-rights movement in the United States of America, down to the millions of acts of petty prejudice that are enacted every day. Underlining this question is the simple formulation: "Can we not live together?"

There are some reviews on my website.

Of the eight novels that you have published so far, which was the most difficult to write? Which was easiest?

The Chinese Girl was the most difficult to write. It was originally conceived as an epistolary novel, but for various reasons that proved to be an impossible way of organizing the material satisfactorily. This meant re-conceiving a form for the novel when it was already half completed. Difficult but interesting.

The easiest to write was the first one, Poet in the Gutter. This was so because I'd never written a novel before and had only the slightest inkling of the problems I would encounter. Also, because I was finally ready to write a novel after many false starts.

It was easy because I was able to set aside anything that got in the way. I was going to write a novel and nothing was going to stop me. I made myself blind to the parts that were not working. There are, in retrospect, many good things about the novel, but if I was to write it now it would be quite different.

What will your next book be about?

My next book, Winged with Death, will not be a crime novel. It is based mainly in Montevideo and its central theme is time. It is a book about revolution, about tango, and about the unfolding of an individual destiny.

There is an extract from the opening chapter on my blog.

Winged with Death has engaged me in more ways than previous novels. It has made me dig deeper and in an artistic sense, it is much more ambitious than anything else I have published.

How much time would you say you spend on writing?

I write every day. Sometimes I only spend a couple of hours at my desk. But I'm there, every morning and something like writing has to occur before I move on to something else. So I spend between 15 and 30 hours a week writing. An approaching deadline might squeeze more from me, but then again, it may not.

I'm driven to write. It is the way I respond to the world. I am aware of myself storing up experiences, thoughts and feelings. At some point I begin, almost unconsciously, to organize this material inside my head.

Later I begin making notes, creating a schemata, sometimes sentences and phrases, sometimes single words. And out of this jumble of ideas, a theme begins to emerge. Often more than one theme. All of this activity is not writing, it is a kind of pre-writing, a chewing over of everything that I've collected, a way of beginning to translate it into words.

Eventually I will begin writing, usually because there is nothing else I can do with my thoughts, and the process of writing will expand the thematic content of the material. From there I am concerned almost entirely with language.

In what way does language become a concern?

When one is dealing with a novel, or, I suppose, any work of art, one is dealing not with the real world, but with an event in consciousness. This is what I mean by language.

I am dealing with constraints, as any artist must deal with constraints, because these constraints are an essential part of the structure of my novel. Out of these constraints arise the narrative sequence. And, in addition, I am concerned with rhythm. I read what I have written aloud to ensure that the correct rhythms are there and to show up the lies and falsehoods that have crept into the narrative.

On a larger scale the temporal rhythm contained within the novel as a whole is held together by language and the use of language and as a writer this is the realm in which I live.

Which other challenges do you face when you are writing?

Talent is only a small part of the writing process, especially in the realm of the novel. Writing a novel is a huge commitment in time, it means that you have to be capable of concentrating on your given theme for many months, perhaps years, to the exclusion of almost everything else. This means keeping fit, physically, and keeping strong, mentally. There is an awful lot of space for self-doubt in the time it takes to conceive, write, edit, and complete a novel. This is why there are so many would-be writers out there who never actually manage to complete a manuscript.

But beyond that there is the question of the quality or originality of the novel that I am working on. I'm always looking for a miracle. I want my present project to succeed where the previous ones failed. I'm not talking about other people's perceptions here, not how the book was received by the critics or the public, but what I think about it. I don't want to rewrite something I've already written. I want it to be something that the world has never seen before. I want it to be so good that it can walk and talk and have babies.

How do you deal with these problems?

By keeping the faith. By enormous and continual efforts of the will. By coming at each obstacle from every possible direction. By listening.


Writing, like most things, gets better through practice.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

I had a great English teacher when I was around ten years old and I believe it was him who lit the flame. He was passionate about the language and particularly about English writers. He encouraged my own writing and the books that I chose to read. He made my judgments feel valid, whereas most of my teachers made me feel as though I were invisible.

My mother was an avid reader and she taught me to read at an early age. We went to the library together every week. I remember reading the novels of Enid Blyton, the Billy Bunter books, the series of Biggles books, Just William and the other William books. I also read weekly comics, The Beano and Dandy, the Hotspur and later the Marvel comics and other horror comics.

I haven't read any of these since that time and have no intention of doing so. I suppose they stimulated my imagination and gave me some notion of how exciting written narrative can be. They also hooked me into the need for story. I read widely, classic, contemporary novels, newspapers, short stories, poetry.

The main influences during my teens would include the Americans, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. At around the same time I was reading Zola and Dostoevski and Thomas Hardy. Later there was Knut Hamsun, Carson McCullers, Katherine Mansfield, and more recently, Carol Shields and Sylvia Plath.

If you're hankering after one it would be Hamsun because, he, more than any of the others, spoke directly to me. I responded to him in a more direct way, as if we were friends who had shared a unique view of the world. In retrospect I can see that this was all confined to his first four books. I was not impressed by his later works.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Absolutely. One can only really write about what one knows.

The direction of one's writing is concerned with identity and identity as far as art is concerned is to do with style. Style is the writer, it is what makes the writer a writer and what makes the writer the kind of writer that he, or she, is.

I don't think it is possible to distinguish between personal experience and literary experience. What happened in my 'real' life and what happened in my imagination are entirely indistinguishable by now. I often smile when people tell me that they don't read novels because they only want to read about facts. There is nothing you could write in a novel that hasn't already happened in the so-called real world.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Reading, Writing and Self-publishing

Since September 2006, the Leicester Review of Books has been conducting a survey to find out what readers and writers think of self-publishing and self-published books.

Among other things, we are asking writers to tell us their experiences of self-publishing. What benefits have they received? What are some of the disadvantages or challenges that they have experienced?

We are also asking writers to talk about the reasons that motivated them to by-pass the literary agent and the mainstream publisher and publish their books themselves.

And, which is equally important, we are asking for readers’ experiences of reading self-published books.

How do the books compare with those that have been published by mainstream publishers? Are they just as good or are they inferior? If they are inferior, why is this?

Wikipedia defines self-publishing as “the publishing of books and other media by the authors of those works, rather than by established, third-party publishers.”

The encyclopedia goes on to explain that although self-publishing represents a small percentage of the publishing industry in terms of sales, it has been present in one form or another since the beginning of publishing .

“… many works now considered classic were originally self-published, including the original writings of William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, William Morris, and James Joyce.”

Hugh Griffin, who works for the Los Angeles engraving and printing company, Stuart F. Cooper, adds that in the United States “self-publishing” refers to the practice of buying one’s own International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to protect publishing rights and having the printing done by one‘s self.

“Many authors produce books for low prices and sell them successfully…but almost without exception, they use genuine ‘self-publishing,’” Griffin says.

The question of self-publishing is even more important today because advances in technology have made it easier than ever before for writers to publish their own books and make what they are writing available to a wider audience. As Wikipedia contributors point out, the tools which facilitate self-publishing and which are at writers’ disposal have been made possible by advances in technology associated with xerography, desktop publishing, print on demand technology, the internet and blogging.

From the discussion that is emerging, there are strong concerns that a lot of what is being self-published is of a poor quality.

Anna Creech, a librarian and blogger, is strongly opposed to self-published books.

“I’ve read only a handful of self-published books, so admittedly my experience with them is limited,” she says. “However, all of those books needed the heavy hand and red pen of an editor before they could be palatable. As a result, I refuse to read any more self-published books.”

She advises writers to get an editor who is not related to them before they decide to publish anything.

Wikipedia contributors suggest that the problem of sub-standard self-published books is in part due to the fact that it is often very difficult to differentiate self-publishing from vanity publishing.

“The latter term is a pejorative one, usually referring to situations in which a publisher contracts with authors regardless of the quality and marketability of their work,” the encyclopedia explains. “They [vanity publishers] appeal to the creators' vanity and desire to become a ‘published author’, and make the majority of their money from fees charged to the creators for publishing services, rather than from sales of the published material to retailers or consumers.”

Linda L. Rucker, like a lot of other writers who venture into self-publishing has had her own brush with a vanity publisher.

She has published two novels, What the Heart Wants and Dark Ridge as well as a collection of short stories, Words out of Time. Her short stories have also been featured in the anthologies, Forget Me Knots, Romancing the Soul, the 2005 Riverdale Short Story Annual and in April Rollins’ Coffee Camp Review Magazine.

She says she was horrified when What the Heart Wants came out.

“Like a great many of the un-initiated, I too went with PublishAmerica for my first book. At first, I was elated that a so-called traditional, royalty paying publisher wanted to publish my book, but when I held the finished product in my hand, I was horrified.

“No editing, was the worst of what I saw. As a new writer, I had no idea about editing. I figured that if the spelling was correct, then the manuscript was good to go.”

For her second novel, Linda L. Rucker shopped around and managed to secure an agent.

“She was a good agent, but patience has never been one of my virtues, so waiting for her to find a publisher just didn’t work for me. But, more [than] that was the notion that when she did find one, it could be anywhere from eighteen months to three years before my book hit the stores. As I said, patience is not a virtue for me. So, I chose to release my agent from her contract and go with self-publishing. Most folks think that term is a death knell, but is it really?”

Shawn Street, a PublishAmerica public relations officer disputes Linda L. Rucker’s claims and asserts that the company does edit books for grammar and spelling.

“We do not change the content of the book. When the Text Production Department edited her book, Ms. Rucker had two opportunities to review the work and approve any changes that were made.”

Street argues that PublishAmerica markets the books it publishes and makes them available to online bookstores and to bookstores across North America through the wholesalers Ingram, Brodart, and Baker & Taylor.

“PublishAmerica sends out press releases announcing a book’s release, as well as announcement letters to the author’s family and friends. We also send review copies to legitimate reviewers daily. Further marketing is a joint operation between the publisher and the author,” Shawn Street says.

Lilian Masitera, one of the most versatile Zimbabwean writers, has published a collection of poems, Militant Shadow; a novel, The Trail; and a collection of short stories; Now I Can Play.

Her writings tackle contemporary issues in Zimbabwean culture and she does it in a manner that is clear, straight forward, no-holds-barred and forceful.

Her books are examples of high quality self-published works.

She argues that because a book has been self-published does not mean it is sub-standard or of a poor quality.

Another author, Irving Karchmar says he decided to self-publish Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Novel because mainstream publishers did not want to be associated with it.

“I can’t do anything about the relentless commercialism of modern publishing, especially since it is a Sufi novel, about Muslims, published after 9/11, that no one wanted to touch. So after a couple of years of sending it out to agents and publishers, I decided to publish it myself.”

The novel since been has translated into Russian; Bahasa, Indonesia’s national language; Turkish, and into Malayalam, the language of the Indian state of Kerala.

Karchmar identifies a number of factors behind his novel’s success.

“I think I did it mostly in a smart way. I had a friend design the interior and cover, ($500.00) [I] did my own editing, along with friends, and paid only $99.00 for the initial fee for putting it in their system, which included an ISBN. I also decided to pay an extra $75.00 to get a Library of Congress I.D. number, and a bit more to get into Baker and Taylor wholesalers, so anyone going into a bookstore could order my book. They have deals with other online sources and are now owned by so my book is on Amazon, and Abebooks, Alibiris, Borders, and many small websites that affiliate with Amazon.”

He advises writers who want to self publish to invest in a good website, to market themselves and join discussion groups as well as invite bloggers to review the books.

Booksurge pays 25% of the cover price as royalty, so it is not too bad a deal, and by many hours of working at it, I have managed to sell well over 500 copies online and to a few bookstores. I also got a few bloggers to review the book and some magazines,” Irving Karchmar says.

Wikipedia contributors support Karchmar’s views when they observe that self-published works that find large audiences tend to be rare exceptions, and are usually the result of self-promotion.

They give The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield; The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer; What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles; In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters; Photoshop Efx: What Side You're On? by Dhanang Rah Wibowo and Eragon by Christopher Paolini as modern-day examples of self-published books that have been successful.

Another example is Graham P. Taylor who earned a publishing deal worth 3.5 million pounds after he had self-published his first novel, Shadowmancer. Taylor’s books have since been translated into over twenty different languages and are also going to be turned into movies.

Irving Karchmar says, “It can be done! It just takes work, like anything else in life.”

Writers who are contemplating self-publishing need to investigate the industry thoroughly and make sure that their work has been sufficiently edited and critiqued before they take it to the printers. They should also be prepared to market and promote their books aggressively.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Interview _ Siobhan Logan

The Poetry of Mass Movement

Siobhan Logan is one of the most exciting emerging voices in British literature. Some of her work has appeared in A Slice of Cherry Pie, a poetry chapbook anthology edited by Ivy Alvarez and inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The anthology is published in the United Kingdom by The Private Press, and in the United States by Half Empty/Half Full.

Beginning in 2005 with “Black Dog,” and followed this year by “The Dead Walk Box,” her stories have received commendations in the annual Leicester and Leicestershire Short Story Contest for two years in a row. In the same year her poem, “The Builder,” was selected for Body and Soul, a poetry anthology published by United Press. She was also awarded the Merit prize for another poem, “Window,” in the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition.

Siobhan Logan has also been invited to work with the visual artist Jackie Stanley on an exhibition on the theme of Aurora Borealis for the Physics Department of Leicester University in a collaborative project fusing visual arts with poetry. She spoke about her poetry and short stories and the novel she is working on and the concerns that unite her work.

Your short story, “Frog Island Lesson,” seems to be a fragment. Is it part of a bigger story?

I am doing some research and making notes on a novel. The novel is set in Leicester and centers on themes of migration. There are two strands in the story I want to explore in it. I want to explore the story of child migrants - about 10 years ago, Margaret Humphreys, a social worker who worked with people who had been adopted, discovered that hundreds of British children were literally deported to institutions in other countries. Some were sent to places like Australia and Canada.

When was this?

In the '20s and '30s. It accelerated after the war and was happening as late as 1967. There was so little understanding of how this would traumatize children. They had a hard time. The stories of what these children went through are heartbreaking. Their records and identities as British children were erased.

How did these stories come out?

Over the last 10 years or so, quite a lot of them have been trying to track their origins and it has been proving to be difficult. I want to pick up on that story and connect it with one on people working with asylum-seekers and immigrants in Leicester. It will be a challenge to weave the two strands together.

Asylum-seekers are in the news a lot. Do you think the image that is being presented of them is accurate?

I see asylum-seekers as people who are already in a very vulnerable position who then face destitution at the hands of government policy here. They have become a political football for our media and political parties who promote the idea that asylum-seekers are somehow sponging off us.

Asylum-seekers are the modern scapegoat - what Jews were in an earlier period or Irish or Asian immigrants after them.

Why do you think there is this scapegoating?

This shambolic government deflects attention from its own shortcomings by trying to criminalize the poor. They deflect people’s worries about inadequate resources in the [National Health Service] NHS or education onto people who come in with almost nothing.

Yet this government pours billions of pounds in pursuing war and destruction elsewhere. There’s a blank cheque when it comes to war in Iraq yet they say we can’t afford decent pensions.

Asylum-seekers are not scroungers?

If you look at places like Leicester, you can see that immigrants who have settled here have made a huge contribution, both economically and culturally, to the city.

It doesn’t make sense to think of immigrants as a drain on resources. Look at Belgrave, where I live - families arrived here decades ago after being expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda. Fleeing persecution, they settled here and worked hard to build a future for themselves and their families - it’s now a thriving, busy community that I’m delighted to be a part of.

Asylum-seekers should be allowed to work — we all need the dignity of that –- and where this is not possible, they should be entitled to full benefits. If you don’t allow asylum-seekers to work, you are not allowing them to contribute to the economy. You are creating, deliberately, a very impoverished group. Which is immoral and unjust.

“Frog Island Lesson” is a short story but it has a lot of qualities about it that you would ordinarily associate with poetry. Was this a conscious move?

I am interested in the way people have stories and myths in their heads and how they make themselves out of those stories. I am interested in pushing at the boundaries of form only if the story needs it. You need a character at the center and whatever pushes the story forward is the form the story should take.

What would you say influences you most as a writer?

My family migrated from North Ireland when I was six. I was surprised how much stuff about Ireland comes into my writing. My own family is spread between these three places: my brother and his family are in Eire; my parents might be moving back to North Ireland; and the rest of my family is in Britain.

For each of the five children in my family, the way we see ourselves in relation to Ireland is different. I think that’s why I want to write about migrants because it has some resonance for me.

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Monday, April 9, 2007

[Interview] James Buchanan

James Buchanan works as an attorney and writes gay romance novels and stories in his spare time. His most recent works include the novels Twice the Cowboy and Cheating Chance. He has also published a novella, My Brother, Coyote, and a collection of short stories, Bittersweets: A Taste of Halloween. His fiction includes mystery, thriller, horror, fantasy, historical and science fiction.

He spoke about his writing, his concerns as a writer and the influences that drive his writing.

When did you start you writing?

I don't remember a time when I wasn't writing. I was pretty sick as a kid, in the hospital a lot and at a time when kids' TV was two hours in the morning and PBS at noon. I started making up stories to entertain myself. At first it was picture books and then poetry and short stories.

I was on the literary magazines in high school and college.

There was a black period in my life, while I was trapped in an abusive relationship, where I didn't write at all. But over the past decade, I've gotten back into it.

Why erotic gay romances?

Blunt answer: I like guys. But, I also find that it allows me a broad range of genres to work in. If I feel like writing a detective novel, I can. If I am inspired to do a horror piece about fallen angels or silly fluff with ice-skating cowboys, somebody will buy it. Twisted fantasy/history with a bi-sexual, anti-hero who falls for his best friend, let's go.

The consistency is a romantic and sexual bonding between two men. You can play with the expectations and relationships. In heterosexual romances the characters must be the alpha guy and the woman he overwhelms… I find those types of characters stifling. Not that you won't find alpha males in my books, but they're likely to be head-to-head with another alpha male.

Also, some of my characters would not necessarily self-identify as "gay," which is why I use the term homoerotic as opposed to gay or homosexual romance. That and I put a lot of sex in my books.

Who influenced you the most?

Authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, Roger Zelazny... I devoured science fiction and fantasy as a teen and through college, even when I was supposed to be reading "real literature" for my degree.

Bizarre as it may seem, I adored Milton and I believe that a good deal of my tendency to hide biblical and mythological references in my books comes from him. I don't know if most people will ever see them, or understand them, but I do believe my stories, like “The Darkness”, are richer for it.

On a more modern level… Lovecraft for his ability to take mundane, everyday life and twist it, torture it and give you a story that leaves a little part of your brain saying, "well, it's not that outrageous."

Most of all, Ray Bradbury. The richness and depth of his storytelling still gives me shivers. You can almost see and feel what he describes. I try for that. I don't know if I make it, but I try for it.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

My life is in my books. Not autobiographical to any extent, but I take note of what's going on around me and how people react. I tend to write about places where I've lived, or been to countless times.

I've had some pretty awful things happen in my life, I can transfer the feelings from those into a different but similar situation for a character. Same for the really wonderful times. Sometimes it comes through strong, other times it's much more subtle.

There have been one or two occasions where my current partner was reading over a bit of a story and said, "What, were you writing our fight down?"

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Time, time and time. I'm not at a point where I can devote my life to writing. Student loans need to be paid, food has to get on the table, and the mortgage comes every month.

So I work full time as an attorney. It's a profession that is known for devouring people's lives. You're not expected to work for a firm… you're expected to live for it.

Sometimes my characters just won't cooperate. Other times I've gone blank and can't think of a story to write. Or I have a thousand ideas roaming around my head and I can't focus on any one.

How do you deal with these?

For all of it, taking what time I can and being pretty organized. I carry a personal tape recorder in the car and a spiral notebook in my briefcase. I'll get up at four in the morning when everything is quiet and try and knock out 500 words. Fifteen minutes waiting for the judge to take the bench is enough to do some character sketches.

I don't push myself. When it's not flowing on one story, I'll jump to another bit and write on that, at any one time I've got three or 4=four projects in the works.

Or I'll do research. I've got a stack of books with material I want for some story or another. Every time I get a "plot bunny," I write a brief sketch of it. That way I can go back to it at a later date.

What is My Brother, Coyote about?

At its most basic core My Brother, Coyote is a love story about two Navajo brother-cousins, Seth DelOro and True Yazzie - although not a traditional one. You won't find any sweeping speeches declaring what they feel for each other. True and Seth aren't those kind of guys.

They try to make their way being pulled between the modern white world and that of the traditional Navajo. Seth is in and out of prison. True attempts to span both cultures studying to be a medicine man while getting a college education. It is also about Navajo witchcraft, lore, sexuality and spiritualism. Coyote moves between the real and surreal. There are shamanistic dream battles and skinwalkers. I think it's a very powerful story on several levels… and the feedback I've gotten seems to confirm that.

I wrote it in response to a call for a series through Torquere Press for a line called Everyday Specters. It took me a little over two months to write, not including research time. Which is not bad for a book that length. Most of the time the words just seemed to flow. But there were occasions when it was beating my head on my desk trying to figure out how to do what I wanted to do.

I submitted the manuscript in late February and got a response shortly thereafter… that they couldn't use it for that line. But, the editor loved it so much he passed it on to Alex Draven, the editor who handles stand-alone works. Alex contacted me and said, "I want it and I want to get it out end of April." It was insane trying to get the editing and proofs done in that short of time.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the novella did you find most difficult?

Trying to keep the characters true and believable. While I grew up in the region and I knew people like those in Coyote, I'm not Native American. I had to learn it all. I drove a Choctaw friend nuts constantly asking her questions about tone and voice, and "do you think I'm being respectful with the culture?" I obviously couldn't ask her specifics about being Navajo, since she's not, but I did what I could.

And at times, I got too into the heads of my main characters. I'd find myself writing these very closed, minimal scenes and have to go back in and open it all back up. I loved the ability to go back and remember a place I loved while discovering this whole new world going on around it.

Because Navajo stories and storytelling play a big part in the book, it allowed me to relive my own family's storytelling history. In trying to recall the sense of wonder of an oral tradition, I also rediscovered tales about Poncho Villas' raids and the clock that stopped at the hour of my great-great aunt's death that my grandmother used to tell.

What sets the novella apart from the others that you’ve written?

I'd say that it goes far outside my usual comfort zone. I've never written that far outside my own culture before. I really tried to stretch my boundaries in and write something both sensual and eerie.

It is similar to other things I’ve written in that my books are books I'd want to read. Just because it's erotic doesn't mean, at least to me, that you should short-change the story. And the sensual nature should come from all aspects of the work, not just the sex. So I try and put that flavor into them… the ability to have all five senses going in a book.

I have to care why the characters are doing what they're doing. Even with a mainstream mystery… if I don't care about the characters, I'll toss it.

What is your next book about?

I'm working simultaneously on two full-length novels. One is a sequel to Cheating Chance (November 2006, Torquere Press), a mystery involving electronic slot cheating and international drug cartels. The sequel tackles Southern California Vietnamese gang involvement in illegal gambling and gets deeper into the relationship between Detective Brandon Carr (who's in the closet) and Gaming Agent Nicholas O'Malley (who's not). That adds a great deal of conflict and tension into their relationship and allows me to explore the world from two different perspectives.

The other is another cop story, The Good Thief, about an LAPD officer who gets involved with a burglar in trying to bring a child molester, a high-ranking officer within the force, to justice. The dichotomy between the harassment the gay officer receives as a marginalized "outsider" and the way the police force draws in ranks to protect what it believes to be one of its core members, I think will be very powerful.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I'm torn between getting published at all and my first piece of fan mail. Honestly, to read someone gushing about how wonderful they found the story and how much they loved the characters… I could ride that high for months. I put my heart into my work and I really try to bring my characters to life. To find that someone else feels as strongly for what I wrote makes it all worthwhile.

How did you get there?

I started playing with writing (after my hiatus) in fan fiction. It was something fun to do and blow off steam. The positive feedback I got there gave me confidence to try my hand at my original stories again.

Posting a few attempts on some free erotica sites got me more feedback. Some of it was useless, but a lot of people took the time to go over where I'd done it right or missed the boat. They gave me the confidence and encouragement to try a contest. My story did not get picked up that time, but the editor of the contest pointed me in the direction of Torquere.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

[Interview] Irving Karchmar

Irving Karchmar has an M.A. in Philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago, and has worked on such varied magazines as Hustler and the American Bar Association (ABA) Human Rights magazine. Between 1977 and 1985, he published Fantastic Films magazine.

In 1986, Karchmar won the Trade Magazine Press Editors Award for his work with the ABA's Barrister magazine. In the same year, he published his first book, It Was Mostly You, a collection of poetry.

Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Tale is his latest work. The novel has since been translated into Russian; Bahasa; Turkish, as well as into Malayalam, the language of the Indian state of Kerala.

Irving Karchmar spoke about his writing and the work that went into the novel.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I have always been an avid reader, and began writing poetry in my early teens. From there it progressed to working for magazine publishing companies as an editor and writer, continuing to write poetry, and after a few awkward attempts at my own fiction, getting the idea for Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Novel.

I did not decide to be a writer; it was a gradual evolution and confluence of work opportunities and practice that led me to it.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

The Sufi path of love has been my greatest influence, as you can tell by Master of the Jinn, but my love of good writing, and for certain genres, such as science-fiction, fantasy, and Persian and Arabic fiction and Sufi stories all seemed to mesh together to influence me. And of course, the love and support of my beloved family, friends and darvishes, all fellow travelers on life's journey.

What are darvishes?

A darvish is the same as a dervish, which is a disciple in a Sufi Order, or more accurately, a disciple of a Sufi Master. Darvish is the Persian way of spelling and pronouncing it.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My only concern as a writer is to tell the truth as best I can, in the best way I am able. On the Sufi path this is a lifelong task. Also, to hone my writing skills, which to me is not only telling a story on paper, but adding some iota of understanding to the human experience.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

The most influential personal experience was almost dying in 1986, and the out of body experience I had because of it. I was in the hospital for six weeks, and after I came out, by the grace of God, I had a new outlook and also many unanswered questions. I found the place to ask those questions on the Sufi path, and so that is what I write about — those eternal questions and way in which I am finding the answers to them, or finding how to ask better questions.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

As far as personal challenges, advancing on the path, as to professional challenges, finding publishers and agents that believe in my work. And always to find better and more specific ways to tell the truth.

How do you deal with these?

One day at a time. I can't do anything about the relentless commercialism of modern publishing, especially since it is a Sufi novel, about Muslims, published after 9/11, that no one wanted to touch. So after a couple of years of sending it out to agents and publishers, I decided to publish it myself.

As for telling the truth, it is a matter of finding what truth there is within myself, and my knowledge of the path and the world, and telling a story in that framework. Since I personally am deficient in knowledge and the path, all that is good in the book was God-inspired; all the rest is my own doing.

What is Master of the Jinn about?

It is a mystical adventure tale on the Sufi path of Love, wherein a modern-day Sufi Master sends seven companions on a quest for the greatest treasure of the ancient world - King Solomon's ring. The legendary seal ring is said to control the Jinn, those terrifying demons of living fire, and in seeking it the companions discover not only the truth of the Jinn, but also the path of Love and the infinite mercy of God. That's from the Amazon description, and fits nicely.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

Master of the Jinn took five years to write, another few years of sending it out, having it rejected, re-editing it, sending it out again, etc, until technology caught up with my intention and I could publish it inexpensively.

Where and when was it published?

It was published in the English edition in Sept. 2004 by Bay Street Press through Booksurge, a print on demand publisher in the U.S.A. They are now owned by Amazon.

The Russian-language edition was published in 2001 by Sophia Publishing of Moscow. The Indonesian edition (in Bahasa, the national language) will be out in 2007, published in Jakarta by Prenada Media, as will the 2007 Turkish edition, published in Turkey by Inlan Yayinlari Publishing.

The Indian edition is under contract, to be published in Kerala State, in Malayalam, the language there. It will be out in 2008. I am in negotiations for a Dutch edition, and one in Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi, God willing.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Of course, the most difficult part of writing the book was what comes next. And also being true to the Sufi path and myself, as well as the story.

Being a darvish of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, I could not make up wise sayings, for instance. I am not wise. All that the Sufi Master in the book says as dialogue are actual words of Sufi masters of the past. And I wanted to start each chapter with a quote that fit the chapter. That was fun too.

Researching the story of King Solomon and early Hebrew life and culture, as well as the Taureg culture of the Sahara, was also a learning experience. All of what is written about it is factual, though woven into a fictional story.

Sometimes I would wait for six months between inspirations, until I read enough or learned enough, or something happened in my life and meditation that led me to the next sentence. It was a process of learning and becoming, of growing with the book.

Which did you enjoy most?

Honestly, the entire experience was the best time in my life. Writing a book you love with characters you love, or just writing and then reading a sentence or paragraph that works, that conveys what you have in your heart, of love and hope and God's mercy, is one of the joys of being a writer. I could have kept working on it forever, and sometimes wish I was still working on it.

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

This is nothing like I have ever written, since it is my first book, but looking back over my poems and stories, I see a pattern emerging of a romantic nature to my writings. Perhaps the book is just an extension of that, with the influence of the Sufi path leading the way. The Sufi also consider God the Beloved.

What will your next book be about?

I am writing a sequel entitled Tale of Jinn. It will pick up where Master of the Jinn left off, and be a cosmology and a history as well as extend the tale into the future. It may turn out to be three or four books, I don't know. The tale has taken on a life of its own.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I don't know that I have achieved anything significant as a writer. I loved writing the book, and many readers seem to love it also. One reader told me she can't wait to have children so she can read the book to them. That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to a writer, as least to this writer.

How did you get there?

With the love and teaching of Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, and by the grace and mercy of God. There is no other way to get anywhere.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

[Interview] Emily Maguire

Emily Maguire divides her time between writing and teaching English.

Her articles on sex, religion, culture and literature have been published in newspapers and magazines that include The Observer, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Financial Review.

Her first novel, Taming the Beast, has been translated into ten languages.

In 2006, the novel received a special commendation in the Kathleen Mitchell Awards. In the same year, the novel was also placed on the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize for Fiction longlist.

Emily Maguire spoke about some of the things that motivate her as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I've always written, but I decided I'd try to make a career of it only after working in crushingly boring office jobs for a number of years.

What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

I'm interested in challenging people's moral assumptions. Most people absorb certain ideas as children and never question or investigate them, so we have a society filled with adults whose ideas about sex, religion and moral responsibility remain at seventh grade level.

I'm influenced by writers who manage to write about deeply serious subjects without becoming preachy or overly-somber. Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer, A.L. Kennedy and Mary Gaitskill have all been important to my development as a writer.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

It can be hard to go to really dark places in my writing sometimes. I was raised to be nice and pleasant and make everybody feel comfortable; it can be very difficult to ignore that upbringing.

I'm learning that I can't control people's reactions and if I try to, I will never write anything interesting.

I've accepted that some people are going to think I am my characters, no matter how much I deny this. And some who believe that I am not my characters will consider me a corrupt and possibly dangerous human being for having invented this stuff.

What is your novel about?

Taming the Beast tells the story of Sarah Clark, a clever but damaged young woman who is drawn into a violent love affair with the teacher who abused her as a teenager.

Daniel Carr leaves her bloody and bruised after every meeting, but despite the protestations of her best friend and sometime lover, Jamie Wilkes, Sarah is adamant that Daniel is the love of her life. She sees his monstrousness as a challenge and believes she is strong enough to "tame the beast."

The novel's chief concerns are sexual politics, transgressive relationships and what it means to love someone who damages you body and soul.

Taming the Beast attempts to overturn modern expectations of twenty-something relationships and female desire, while seriously challenging the contemporary paradigm that real love is healthy and nourishing.

How long did it take you to write it?

A couple of years. I was working full-time in an office, so I wrote it mostly during the insomniac hours.

It was first published in Australia in 2004 and then published in the U.K. in 2005. The U.S. edition has just been released this month [September].

Which aspects of the work that you put into the novel did you find most difficult?

Cutting was the hardest thing. I started with a manuscript almost three times the length of the final book. Throwing out chapters, pages, plot lines and characters in order to produce the novel was very, very difficult. But very necessary.

Which did you enjoy most?

I just love to write. I love that I can sit down at my computer with my head full of real-life stuff and 10 or 20 minutes [later] I am just gone.

Taming the Beast has a very dark view of human nature. My subsequent novel and my non-fiction are a touch more positive about human motivation and behavior.

My fiction is always about challenging the accepted ideas about what is right and good. Taming the Beast fits with my obsession about questioning mainstream morals and mores.

Which themes will you be exploring in is your next book?

My second novel, The Gospel According to Luke, is about religious terrorism, belief, family, grief and hope.

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Monday, April 2, 2007

[Interview] Kadija Sesay, literary activist

Kadija Sesay is founder and publisher of SABLE, a literary magazine that focuses on new writings by writers of African and Asian descent. She is also the series editor for Inscribe, an imprint for Peepal Tree Press.

In addition to this, Kadija Sesay edits anthologies.

So far, the anthologies she has edited include:
She spoke about her writing and the work she is doing with writers of African and Asian descent.

How do you find the time to do all the things you are doing and still be able to write?

At the moment, I am doing too much. But I don't like abandoning things that aren't complete unless it's for a very good reason. I'm trying to phase some things out - it's difficult and taking longer than I would like.

For the past few years, I've really only written if someone asks me to contribute something that will definitely be published. I don't have much time to concentrate on my craft as a writer. Or I go away on a writer's workshop, which always motivates me to write; stimulates new ideas etc.

I'm trying to create more time for me, to dip into writing now and then in a much more relaxed way as well as have more time for reading. But I've never really been like that - that constitutes a wholesale lifestyle change and I'm convinced that what the problem really is is that the days are much shorter than they used to be!

I don't mind this right now, as it is a choice I have made. I enjoy working with other writers in the way that I do; when I am ready to focus on me, I'll do that.

A lot of the work that you are doing focuses on black arts, literature and women's issues. What motivated you to focus on these issues?

It happened naturally, really. About 15 years ago, I read a book called Live Your Dreams by Les Brown. I then made the decision that whatever I had to do, to earn my daily bread, should be something that I love so that it didn't feel like work. Here I am! It can be dangerous though, as it is very easy to do that and not get paid and so only earn daily crumbs.

If I had had more confidence in myself at that time, I probably would have gone to journalism school, or if I had known about the Creative Writing M.A. at the University of East Anglia (UEA), [I] would have gone to do that.

I grew up in an era when Creative Writing wasn't a degree choice. Wasn't even an "A Level Choice." I told my teachers that I wanted to study "English Language" as an A Level subject, as that was the subject in which we wrote poetry and prose, wrote non-fiction, had to write précis, learnt English grammar, and I loved it. But they said it didn't exist as an "A" Level course. When I asked them why, they said they didn't know.

I ended up doing Economics instead because my Dad said so! Yuck! Of course, I was hopeless at it. Never really enjoyed it.

Anyway, I took a different route to be where I am now and I don't regret it.

You have also worked with young people both inside and outside of the school system. What did this work involve?

In the U.K., this involved summer universities and after-school Journalism programs and Creative Writing workshops.

I worked with three young people to start Nang!, the Tower Hamlets magazine in 2001. I'm glad to say it's still being produced.

Abroad, I have worked on leadership programs, primarily the Youth Quest program at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I really enjoyed the people I worked with and the young men I worked with.

I am still working with young people, in various ways. I did a workshop as part of the Youth Slam Festival in Leeds, around the work of the poet Sonia Sanchez - they really enjoyed it and so did I and I'm going to use my experiences during that workshop as part of an essay I've been asked to write on Sonia Sanchez.

The biggest challenges I've met were in America. It's a different culture and I spoke differently to them! Sometimes it worked to my advantage; sometimes they really tried to play me. I was working with teenage boys - joy and pain!

What is Sable Litmag?

Sable LitMag is a literary magazine for new writing by writers of African and Asian descent. It was started in 2000. The first issue featured Linton Kwesi Johnson on the cover.

We've been trying to bring it out quarterly. For various reasons that hasn't happened; but we should be able to achieve that next year. It's distributed online and through specialist bookstores in the U.K. and U.S. and mainly by subscription.

What is its readership like?

Very broad - our subscribers range from age 20 upwards and include academics, published writers, new writers, and other interested individuals who like to read and are interested in cultures others than their own.

It is different from the other magazines on the market in that it is aesthetically as strong as the content. My primary editors are published writers. It is black and white throughout. It is beautiful to look at and read. An orgasmic experience, visually and intellectually. It has an online presence and we are planning to do some major overhauling of the site.

I went to a commercial magazine conference and it opened my eyes to how much we could do and how much we still need to do. So now I think it is pretty basic at the moment, and I need a dedicated web editor.

What are some of the challenges that you are facing with the magazine and how are you dealing with them?

The main challenge is me doing too many other things to focus on the magazine properly, and doing too much of the work myself. This has affected how the magazine is marketed. But that will change shortly.

The production schedule has also been difficult. We need to publish four times a year to meet the schedule. We are working on this.

The infrastructure of the organization needs to be stronger. That's the main thing I'm working on.

Where do you see it in, say, five years' time?

In five years' time, I want and expect it to be a major litmag on the international circuit, selling sufficiently. But the magazine in itself is just the tool, the umbrella for other SABLE products.

For example, in the mid-'90s I set up the writer's hotspot - writers' trips abroad. We went to the Gambia, New York and Cuba. These will re-start next year in the Gambia and Senegal and will be linked to the litfest that I also piloted in 2005 and we are going to launch an award... In five year's time no writer will want to be without Sable.

What is Dreams, Miracles and Jazz: Adventures in New African Fiction?

It is an anthology of short stories by new African writers, on the continent and in the Diaspora. One criteria was that writers should be born on the continent or be of African parentage. I co-edited the anthology with novelist Helon Habila. It is being published by Picador Africa and will be out in 2007.

In your own work that has been published and broadcast locally and abroad, what do you tend to explore most?

In fiction, I tend to write a lot about the dichotomy of being an African in the Diaspora and an African at home (in different scenarios).

I thought about this a few days ago actually and decided that I need to do some radically different stuff! Well I had kind of thought about it before as I want to put together a short story collection and the theme of it will take me away from this topic. I may include it somewhere, but not entirely. Immediately I thought, it would make a great anthology - to include other people's stories under such a theme. I had to stamp my foot though as a little voice in the back of my head said, "there you go again - why do you have to put other writers in it? If you like this idea for yourself, and think it is a great one, just go for it, for you!"

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